We’re just coming off of the Thanksgiving holiday, and I’m wondering how yours went. I say that because we all know the jokes and the tropes about Thanksgiving. It’s supposed to be this delightful family time but supposedly it devolves into families arguing about politics. Apparently, everybody has a crazy, conspiracy-nut uncle, a racist grandma, or a brother-in-law who thinks we should be using the homeless as unpaid labor. Or, perhaps, some people come at this from a different angle – you have a crazy, hippy-dippy cousin who won’t vaccinate her kids, a socialist uncle who thinks everything should be free, and a niece who won’t eat anything at the table because it wasn’t ethically sourced or it isn’t cruelty free. Regardless, family is complicated and according to the jokes and stories we tell Thanksgiving is just a hotbed of familial tension because we all disagree on the fundamentals of well, everything, and can’t put that aside for a few hours for one day a year.
That may be true. That may not be. It could be that your family gets along great and you love the holidays because you get to hang out with your favorite people and enjoy food, drink, and love and merriment and experience the joy and spirit of the season as it was meant to be.
But it is also possible that you come away from the holidays thinking “There has to be a way to connect and communicate with these people that doesn’t end in YELLING.”
So that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Maybe not in time for Thanksgiving, but to give you a means to think about how you’re going to a) handle any apologies, or b) look forward to Christmas.
Now, I have to admit, this is not my specialty. This is not where I am most comfortable. I am, I guess, not in my heart, a peacemaker as this process I am about to lay out for you would have me be.
But today we’re going to talk about something very different than what we have talked about before – we’re going to talk about invitational rhetoric.
Invitational rhetoric was developed by Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin in the mid-90s. Invitational rhetoric is the “invitation to understanding as a means to create a relationship rooted in equality, immanent value, and self-determination.”
The theory argues that traditional rhetoric is patriarchal in that it attempts to force change in its audience. Rhetoric tries to alter its environment and “influence the social affairs” of others.
That’s a controversial charge in an of itself. To say that traditional rhetoric is patriarchal gets a lot of people riled up. Clearly, and as we will see as we move through this, this is a theory of rhetoric that is firmly grounded in feminist theory. That is not to say all women use invitational rhetoric and all men use traditional rhetoric. That’s not what that means at all. As I said earlier, I, a woman, am not one who gravitates toward invitational rhetoric. The response to that would be that I have been socialized into traditional, patriarchal rhetoric. We all have.
Embedded in this traditional approach to rhetoric is a desire for control and domination. That’s what makes it patriarchal. Traditional rhetoric is firmly grounded in notions of power and force, traditionally “masculine” (and I hope you can see me putting that in air quotes) characteristics. Rhetoric aims to convince or force you to change your mind. It is a matter of dominating your choices.
Now, we can argue all day whether rhetoric is really a matter of force or dominating. That’s a whole issue in and of itself. But the theory of invitational rhetoric operates from the assumption that traditional rhetoric is a kind of brute force in that way. It aims to dominate the listener. You can do with that what you will.
(If you have taken many classes in debate or argumentation you know there are a number of ways of thinking about this, but rhetoric seems to be the most forceful means of persuasion.)
Invitational rhetoric offers a different approach. Invitational rhetoric invites the audience into the rhetor’s world to see things as the rhetor does. Ideally, audience members accept that invitation and also offer their own perspectives . By ascertaining a variety of perspectives rhetor and audience gain a richer and more nuanced understanding of complex issues. But the benefits are not just in understanding the problem – by offering the different perspectives of the audience and the rhetor participants can gain an understanding of each other as well.
In traditional theories of rhetoric the goal is to change others. In this theory of rhetoric the goal is not to persuade but to come to an understanding.
Invitational rhetoric is rooted in three feminist principles that “explicitly challenge the positive value the patriarchy accords to changing and thus dominating others.”
- The first feminist principle is Equality. In traditional rhetoric the rhetor is superior to or above the audience or those they are trying to persuade. This is one of the things that many theorists of rhetoric from the past have struggled with in rhetoric. The rhetorician believes that their ideas, their opinions, are superior – otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to convince the audience of them. The rhetor adopts a position of superiority to the audience in traditional rhetorical theory because the traditional rhetor believes they have the superior position and have the job or responsibility or just even the opportunity to change people’s minds. In invitational rhetoric the rhetor and the audience are viewed as equal peers who share authority and expertise and contribute equally to an interaction.
- The second feminist principle is Immanent Value: All individuals have unique, valuable perspectives that should be appreciated for what they bring to the situation. Each individual has a particular perspective that is theirs and theirs alone and is valuable because that person is valuable. This principle is grounded in the idea of the innage dignity of each human, and because each person is valuable, their perspective is valuable.
- The third feminist principle is Self-determination: People are competent and should be allowed to make their own decisions about their lives. It is possible change may occur as a result of an interaction, although that is not the goal. In the case of invitational rhetoric, both the rhetor and the audience may choose to change their perspectives as a result of the process of sharing perspectives, but the goal is to come to a mutual understanding about the situation, and ultimately each other.
Those who engage in this kind of rhetoric seek a variety of perspectives because they recognize each point of view is partial, so they need a variety of viewpoints to have as comprehensive an understanding of an issue as possible. They are especially interested in viewpoints other than their own. By understanding as many perspectives as possible the problems at hand come into clearer view.
Invitational rhetoric should be seen as a means to solve a problem or make a decision as opposed to convince someone of your perspective. In this way it subverts the patriarchal nature of traditional rhetoric. Whereas traditional rhetoric assumes a superior position and tries to convince or force the audience to assume that same position through exercises in power, invitational rhetoric tries to solve the problem or make a decision through perspective-sharing and cooperation.
There are two primary rhetorical options in invitational rhetoric: (1) offering perspectives; and (2) creating external conditions that encourage audience members to share their perspectives with the rhetor.
- Offering perspectives is how rhetors share their ideas with audience members, explaining what they know or understand about an issue or idea without advocating for those perspectives. This can happen verbally or nonverbally. For example, a rhetor can explain their position without arguing or advocating for it, or they can wear a button or a shirt that indicates their perspective.
- Creating external conditions involves creating an environment that encourages audience members to share their perspectives with the rhetor. To accomplish this objective, the invitational rhetor attempts to create three conditions:
- Safety: Safety is “a feeling of security and freedom from danger for the audience.” When an audience member feels safe, they feel like they can share their ideas without being accosted, belittled, or shamed.
- Value: or acknowledgment by the rhetor that the audience members have intrinsic worth. Rhetors show they that value the uniqueness of audience member’s perspectives. They listen carefully to each contribution and encourage audience members to share their ideas.
- Freedom: Rhetors give audience members the freedom to make their own choices, even if they are different that the choices made by the rhetors.
An example of invitational rhetoric that Foss and Griffin provide is Adrienne Rich’s acceptance speech when she on the National Book Award’s prize for poetry in 1974. When she read her speech, she read a statement that had been prepared with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, who had also been nominated for the award, where they announced they were accepting the award together. They accepted the award in the name of all women who go unheard in a patriarchal world. They clearly stated their belief but presented no argument in favor of their belief and didn’t argue against the position of those who organized the National Book Award. They didn’t seek the agreement of others; they just offered their own vision.
The three values of safety, value, and freedom required for others to present their perspectives was there in this speech, as well. They communicated safety when they said the respected the judges and the work they had done. They imparted value to many specific individuals both in the immediate audience and beyond by acknowledging the struggles of women from all walks of life and credited them as sources for their own work.
The rhetors provide freedom in that they do no prescribe how women should respond to this or the kinds of support they should offer. Women are left to self-determine themselves.
Invitational rhetoric is a kind of idealized way of speaking that asks a great deal of the audience and of the rhetor. It assumes a good deal of respect between audience and rhetor. That’s what those precepts are all about. And if those can be followed then invitational rhetoric could be an excellent way to approach problem solving and dialogue.
But there are some critiques to invitational rhetoric that are worth considering.
Consider the principle of “imminent value.” I don’t think any of us would argue that an individual does not have value. But are we really prepared to accept that all perspectives are equally values and should be given equal weight in a dialogic or dialectic situation? If a person comes with a blatantly racist, sexist, transphobic, classist, or fascist perspective, do we have to recognize the value in their perspective for invitational rhetoric to function?
Invitational rhetoric assumes there is value in all perspectives. But really, IS there? Are some perspectives, valueless? But by saying so, are we feeding into the criticism that invitational rhetoric makes of traditional rhetoric.
I feel comfortable saying my perspective is superior to that of a blatant racist or a fascist. Does that make me patriarchal? Can I not participate in invitational rhetoric? Is this form of rhetoric out of my reach?
Secondly, there is the question of democracy.
Is invitational rhetoric MORE democratic than traditional rhetoric because it considers all perspectives? Or would democracy cease to function if we could not persuade each other?
There are particular reasons that democracy and rhetoric were developed at the same time, in the same place, by the same people. Democracy runs on persuasion. Would invitational rhetoric help or hinder democracy? Does that say something about democracy and patriarchy? Or does it point to the inefficiency of invitational rhetoric?
So what does this have to do with your family?
Can you, in good faith, see your family as equals? Can you appreciate the value of their perspectives? Can you allow them the ability to determine their own wills and decision making? Would all of that help you make peace? Would YOU be at peace with all of that?
Can you provide your family with a safe space to share their perspectives? Can you show them they have intrinsic worth? Can you give them the freedom to make their own choices? Are YOU really comfortable with providing that environment? SHOULD you be?
Invitational rhetoric is a tough critique of traditional rhetoric. Many people think of it as the ideal of rhetoric. Many people think it is idealized nonsense. The question for your next holiday is are all perspectives valuable? Is your position inherently superior? Can you admit that? If it is, how can you allow those other perspectives? What kind of argument can you make to convince people of your perspective? If isn’t, can you allow a safe and free space for others?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.